Cap Ferrat, France
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PLAYBOY Magazine published the following interview with André Bacard in the February 1996 issue (see "Playboy Forum", pages 33-35). For permission to reprint, please contact Playboy.
"Privacy has always been a vital issue in American social and political life, and the widespread use of computers has made it even more so. We asked André Bacard, author of "The Computer Privacy Handbook," to discuss the state of privacy in the digital age. The exchange took place via electronic mail, so millions of you may have already read this."
Bacard: Privacy is the ability to control what, when and how your personal data is given to other people. Powerful institutions believe their right to privacy has a bonafide basis (for instance, "national security" or "trade secrets"), while the individual's claim to privacy is suspicious and subject to these institutions' veto. For me, privacy is a necessary part of democracy. That's why we vote with secret ballots.
Bacard: I think Americans place a high value on privacy. They just don't know how to protect themselves. Movies such as "The Net" show people how easily their privacy can be invaded but offer no solutions.
Bacard: Show me someone who has no financial, sexual, social, political or professional secrets to keep from his family, neighbors or colleagues, and I'll show you someone who is either an exhibitionist or a dullard. Show me a corporation that has no trade secrets or confidential records, and I'll show you a business that isn't very successful. Discretion and tact are pillars of civilization.
Bacard: Many do. Dan Quayle was upset when "Business Week" obtained his credit report. Is he equally upset when his family's newspapers investigate the finances of public figures? George Bush complained bitterly that the press snooped into his family affairs. Yet, is Bush, a former director of the CIA, as morally repulsed when that agency intrudes into people's lives? President Clinton criticized the tabloids for exposing his sexual affairs. But at the same time, he supported the Clipper Chip, which would have given the government access to all online communications and was a huge threat to privacy. Most of us feel it is our natural right to search our children's closets, but we are shocked when our children snoop through our belongings.
Bacard: I would start by creating dossiers on kindergarten children so that the next generation could not comprehend a world without surveillance. I'd also scare the public with stories about terrorists, pedophiles and drug dealers. In fact, that's exactly what's going on right now.
Bacard: Government surveillance is justified when there is evidence that someone is planning or has committed a serious felony, such as a bombing. At the same time, police agencies have always used private data about people in order to squash dissent. A Russian dissident told me that he once asked a KGB agent why he spent so much time tailing him. The agent shrugged and said, "We don't have computers like the CIA." Computers help snoops because they have huge, reliable memories, they're unforgiving, they allow sophisticated memory searches and their records are easily and cheaply transferable.
Bacard: Each year there are roughly 1000 court-authorized wiretaps in the U.S. Does Big Brother need the power to wiretap 250 million people in order to catch 1000 mafiosi, drug dealers and pedophiles? No. This law will cost taxpayers at least $500 million, which is the down payment needed to reengineer the nation's telecommunications systems for these kinds of wiretaps.
Bacard: The NCIC is the FBI's database. Before privacy advocates protested, the FBI had proposed an updated version that would tie into the computers used by airlines, banks, car-rental companies, credit bureaus, the IRS and phone companies. If this isn't a surveillance state, what is?
Bacard: The "diminished expectation of privacy" is a power game. Say a corporation gives its employees the impression that their voice mail is private. But when an employee discovers that his boss reads his electronic mail, the corporation says, "You should have known that e-mail is not private." How are employees supposed to know?
Bacard: That's why we must persuade legislators and the Supreme Court to have more respect for our privacy. It is possible for each of us to reduce the amount of data that we give out, but it will take thought and sacrifice.
Bacard: Learning to run a computer program can take a bit of work, but James Bond skills aren't needed. To make a point, the editors of "Macworld" recently investigated a group of prominent Americans, people who usually take more steps than the average citizen to hide personal information. Using a budget of $100 per person, "Macworld" editors sought all legally accessible data from four commercial and two governmental data suppliers. In addition, the magazine inspected freely available public records. The editors were able to obtain birth dates, civil court filings, commercial loans and debts, corporate ties, driving records, home phone numbers and addresses, marriage records, neighbors' addresses and telephone numbers, real estate records, Social Security numbers, tax liens and vehicle and voter registrations. Not so long ago, only a few private detectives knew these tricks. When the common criminal becomes computer-literate, America will be in trouble.
Bacard: In America, mass marketers, credit bureaus, employment agencies and data peddlers assert that personal data is an economic commodity that belongs to them. They claim that the First Amendment gives them the right to trade or sell your personal data because you gave it to some department store or travel agency.
Bacard: What if the Postal Service were to photocopy all of your incoming and outgoing mail and store it for six months? You would be alarmed. However, this is common practice for e-mail providers. In addition, e-mail snoops can easily scan your mail for "subversive" key words such as sex, marijuana, maybe even "Playboy."
Bacard: Many times they're employers. One survey of businesses found that roughly 25 percent admitted that they eavesdrop on their employees' computer files, e-mail or voice mail. E-mail sent over the Internet is child's play to intercept. The typical message travels through many computers before reaching its destination. Of course, most snoops will deny they're reading your e-mail because they want to continue doing so.
Bacard: Many Internet providers and network administrators store incoming and outgoing mail even after you think you've deleted it. This is what happened, ironically, to the Reagan and Bush administrations over Iran-contra. Oliver North deleted electronic mail, but the e-mail lived on and last year was published as a book.
Bacard: I suggest that people learn to use PGP (pretty good privacy)encryption software, which scrambles and unscrambles data. For example, PGP can encrypt "Andre" so that it appears as "457mRT&%$354." If you have PGP, you can then decrypt that code back into "Andre." Until recently, government agencies such as the National Security Agency had a monopoly on encryption. Personal computers make it possible for everyone to use encryption, which is how it should be. Thomas Jefferson was an amateur cryptographer. He developed a private crypto system with James Madison, and he invented an elaborate wheel cipher. No doubt King George's allies considered Jefferson suspicious, if not criminal, for hiding his diplomatic thoughts.
Bacard: It's not if you have something you want to keep from prying eyes. Politicians running election campaigns, citizens storing tax records, therapists protecting clients' files, entrepreneurs guarding trade secrets, journalists protecting their sources and people seeking romance are a few of those who use it. Suppose you're a manager and you need to e-mail an employee about his job performance. You may be required by law to keep the letter confidential. Encryption also helps secure online financial transactions. And yes, criminals use encryption, but they're more likely to use cars, gloves and ski masks to evade capture. Should we restrict or outlaw those items?
Bacard: An agency with multimillion-dollar supercomputers, crypto experts and a burning desire to spy on you could probably break your code and read your mail. But your boss, friend, online provider or neighborhood hacker has zero chance. Using encryption protects your privacy far better than not using it.
Bacard: I don't have any patience for paranoia; it immobilizes people. But everyone should be aware.